A deeply moving work, inspired by a twenty-five-year marriage to an older man, celebrating the joys inherent when one leaps at the opportunity for love in exchange for a later life alone…
by: Dianne Blomberg
“Mom…Mom, you can’t see them from here.” I stared across the table, between my two teenage grandsons, trying to spot floating rose petals in Sausalito Bay. My husband, Ev, and I had honeymooned here twenty-five years ago. The other restaurant-goers, chatty and upbeat, were unsympathetic. I wondered if they knew I was the luckiest woman in the world.
The server walked away with our lunch order for seafood, more butter for the crusty sourdough, and good wine. Not sure what I had ordered, I smoothed the white tablecloth in front of me. We were seated against a floor-to-ceiling window at an upscale restaurant on the marina, a favorite of mine and my husband’s.
A fall breeze escorted the smell of saltwater and vacation into the dining room from a nearby open window. Memories of vacations by the ocean flooded back and my eyes clouded with tears. The boys held linen napkins against their mouths to hide teenaged silliness. Their muffled laughter tried to fill the room. Not joke laughter, nonsense laughter to protect themselves from public grieving, a gift the mind offers because some grief is too heavy to carry while others watch.
Three hours before lunch, my daughters, grandsons, and I were the only passengers who boarded the 43-foot boat to pour bags of rose petals into the bay. The captain knew exactly how to maneuver his craft to choreograph a floating wreath from the unruly petals. He cut the engine and dropped anchor. The silence of the water was interrupted by the last words we said on Ev’s behalf, poems in honor of this scholar of poetry. I poured my husband’s ashes into the circle and read from a chapbook of poetry he’d given me, a week after our first date. A loon, not common to these waters, paddled around us at a safe distance to observe the burial-at-sea.
Three hours and forty-five minutes before lunch, my family crunched together on a narrow dock in the marina. A retired Air Force captain held a bugle to his lips with his right hand and filled the air with “Taps.” I flinched to hold in the grief this sparked. Wind gusted as two dress-blued Airmen folded an American flag in slow deliberate motions. The flag snapped and ruffled as if Ev were applauding this honor he was due. His presence felt real, as if he hadn’t yet let go. Please stay. We watched; gulls circled, and dock workers, hats in hand, stood at attention. With an echo of the click, click, click from the Airmen’s tapped shoes they funeral-marched up the dock, distancing themselves from us and the ashes of this WWII veteran. I held Ev’s flag, one hand on top, one hand underneath, staring down at the walnut box locked between my feet on the dock, balancing the scale of love and loss.
Four days before lunch, my family and I drove to the Denver International Airport. I sat with both arms stretched over the top and front of the small walnut box to protect it. At security, I wanted to carry it through the arch. “You can’t do that,” a TSA guard snapped.
“But it’s my husband.”
My daughters lifted my arms from around Ev and put him on the conveyor belt. “We’ll wait at this end, Mom, and you wait at the other. It’ll be fine.” I snatched the box when it appeared from inside the tunnel and pulled it near, against my chest, rocking with grief.
“We’ll have to look inside the box, ma’am.”
“Please be careful. He’s a WWII veteran,” I whispered.
“Yes, ma’am.” He lifted the plastic bag and viewed its contents. I let out a gasp. I had not seen Ev in this state until now. My family closed in around me.
On the plane, with Ev squeezed next to me in the seat, I cinched the seatbelt around us. I raised a vodka tonic for our final cocktail hour together. To us. My hand quivered and a few drops splashed onto him.
Four months before lunch, people filled our home for Ev’s memorial. In the center of the kitchen island, I positioned a huge bouquet of roses cut from Ev’s garden earlier that day. I wanted him represented at his best. Their words blurred. I remember talk of his North Dakota accent and something about parties that ended after dawn. From across the room a cousin I hadn’t seen in years, nodded at me. Our terrier barked, asking them to leave then retired to Ev’s office. Ice cubes clinked in glasses. Food dried up on the plate I held. My head bobbed at their sympathy. My daughters gave each person a Cortland apple tree, Ev’s favorite, as they departed. “Please plant this in his honor.” Cards stood open on the kitchen island, remnants of the day. The sweet smell of grief flowers lay heavy in the room.
Everyone gone. Our home silent. Me alone. I took to our bed for three weeks. It felt like I was house sitting, waiting for Dianne and Ev to return.
Five months before lunch, we cried at Ev’s bed side. “Grandpa, we love you so much…” Ev whispered his final advice, “You boys be careful.” Our son-in-law swallowed hard, “Thank you, Ev, for everything.” My girls sat on the bed, “Thank you for being our uber-father,” no talk of stepfather, here. Death was waiting. Time was rushing. Stop, stop, stop. I’m not ready for him to go.
Finally, we were alone. I crawled in bed, looked into him, and sobbed, “I love you.” I rolled over to put my face next to his. We kissed and I breathed him in.
Five months and three weeks before lunch, he depended on me for personal care. “Di,” he called from the bathroom. My gut tightened from both disgust and sadness. Buttoning his pajama shirt, I watched my hands shake. Shake from the unknown. Who will I be without you? Out in the garage was a paint-covered stool where I’d sit and hide and cry and pray for grace. “God, please help me stay kind and patient. Don’t let me look back and wish I had.” Sometimes the anguish came from so deep I held the edges of the stool to stay put.
We discussed what’s next. The disappointment — “I’m just too weak to take our last trip.” The practical —what to expect in the last stages of dying. The business — putting possessions in my name to avoid anything “messy.” The “after I’m gone” directive — “I don’t want you to be alone. I’ve lived alone and it’s no fun. I’ll send you someone.” The embarrassing — “You didn’t sign up for this,” he said, looking down at me. I peeled off latex gloves with a snap and wiped both eyes, “Oh, my love, this is exactly what I signed up for.”
Seven months before lunch, a final cardiologist appointment. We waited in a room where the hospital entertained death. Table lamps cast a warm yellow light. The grey sofa and a single stuffed chair were separated by a coffee table holding Kleenex boxes. The walls displayed photos of Rocky Mountain nature. I felt ill-proportioned at how small Ev was next to me. I longed for our past. Dr. Patel entered and sat across from us. “It’s time to stop searching for an answer that doesn’t exist.” He pulled a bruised wrinkled paper from the front pocket of his sterile white coat. “If I may, I read this poem to all my patients at this point.” A closing gesture.
We walked to the car, “Let’s go to Dairy Queen.” As if he had nothing to spend but the day. I wrapped my arm through his to steady us. That night, I asked if there was anything he wanted to do before the end. The end, an impossible image to conjure. “I want to spend a week by the ocean, alone, with my wife.” A wish never granted.
Eleven months and three weeks before lunch, Mickey Mouse greeted the family as we boarded the Disney Dream to celebrate the holidays at sea. Our three rooms were decorated with lights, tiny trees, and wrapped gifts. Tiring easily, Ev buzzed around the ship on an electric scooter, something new for him. He bumped into walls and upended glasses on other dining tables. After a few of these, the maître d´ repositioned our family near the entrance. At the pool we watched him serpentine through lounge chairs, beeping, beeping the annoying horn for people to, “Make way,” clutching to his fading independence. Someone stood in outrage. That day, we did not claim him as ours. Christmas morning, we stuffed into the boys’ stateroom to open presents and drink Champagne. On New Year’s Eve, Ev, an elegant figure in his tuxedo, was movie-star handsome. He managed one dance with me. Not our usual fancy foxtrot or underarm twirl, no taking command of the floor or attracting attention. We held tight and moved gently. I felt the smooth silk fabric of his tuxedo with my left hand on his shoulder. I breathed in his essence. His familiar fragrance held in my throat just above the sorrow. On tiptoes, my cheek met his for the feel of a freshly shaved face. I stared at him until he glanced down at me. A half-grin, a single wink, and the rush of passion filled me. I squeezed his hand and wanted time to stop.
Seventeen months before lunch, the family flew to Minnesota for our final summer of fishing and s’more-evenings at the bonfire, listening for the loons’ love song. Ev no longer took two stairs at a time or labored in his garden. Those little tells said he was aging quickly. This was the year we located his parents’ old lake property and he peered into the windows; his hands shaded the view from the late summer sun’s interference. “It looks just the way they left it.” He squinted over his shoulder at me.
Ten years before lunch we stood in front of our college students on a fall afternoon team-teaching a course about personal relationships. The air from an open window swirled the smell of dried leaves around the room. A touch as we passed, a knowing glance across the class. Everyone wants to be us, I thought.
Twenty-five years before lunch, most of our wedding guests wondered, why’s she marrying this old man? I made a Faustian agreement that day, the chance for a great love affair in exchange for a later life alone. No more us.
Twenty-five years, seven months, and three days before lunch, on April 29th, we went to an old art-house theater in Denver, for our first date. Walking towards his car after the film, he moved close, “Wanna come back to my place and see my etching? And maybe a nightcap?”
It’s like I’m staring in an old movie. “Well, maybe one.”
His etching was impressive. In the morning, I woke to the ts, ts, ts, … of the sprinkler just outside his bedroom window.
Twenty-five years, seven months, three days, and eighteen hours before lunch, the doorbell rang. It was a substitute teacher I’d recently met at work. I usually dated men my own age, but he was so charming. Why not? One date. Ev and I walked into the tight kitchen of my small home, to find a vase for the roses he’d cut from his garden. There, we stood together under a harsh fluorescent light. He held the roses between us. I took them and sniffed their sweet, sunbaked smell. He moved closer. He said nothing. I stood still. He pulled me near, against his chest. I rocked back to look up at him. My right hand stretched over the top and front of his wrist. My left arm dropped to my side. The rose petals faced the floor; they knew this was private.
Dianne Blomberg is the author of academic pieces in human communication, two children’s picture books, and a personal essay in the Feminine Collective. Her research has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Newsday (New York), The Boston Globe, First for Women, The Denver Post, Family Life, Good Housekeeping, and more. Dianne is an educator, writer, and speaker living in Colorado. Read more from Diane at her website.